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Can I Renew My California Car Registration and Avoid the Smog Check?

While this post is geared for registering California vehicles that are in Baja, with certain limited exceptions it applies to California cars located anywhere outside of California, not just in Baja. There’s also a solution to register any US vehicle in Baja (not just California cars)

Brace yourself. This post is growing incredibly detailed and not for the weary; however, it is one of my most popular posts so I try to ensure it has the information you require. Please comment if something is missing from this post and I will try to include  it.

California vehicles are readily admitted into Baja with California plates. However, if you plan on leaving your car outside of California (e.g., Baja) you need to make a few decisions when the registration expires. You can certainly file a Statement of Non-Operation to avoid California registration fees. Many people do this and seem to get by, some for many many years if they are off the beaten track of the authorities, e.g., on a ranch. However, vehicles on most roads in most jurisictions, including in Mexico, are typically required to be registered… somewhere. A vehicle with expired tags is begging for harassment… anywhere. Even though you may fly under the radar, if you spend time driving in a major city in Mexico, e.g., La Paz or Cabo San Lucas,  you are just begging for trouble. In a small town like Todos Santos, you probably could get by. If you meet the right conditions you could register your car locally, or import your vehicle, e.g.,  into Mexico, Canada or another state in the US. In fact, even the DMV agents will tell you that the regulations cited below are intended to encourage people who leave their cars outside of California to register them where they (the cars) “reside”. However, cost aside, importing a vehicle has its own set of issues which is not the primary purpose of this post. In fact, in some cases, for a variety of reasons, it’s simply not possible. In Mexico imported cars may have higher insurance premiums which is a discincentive. Also, you need to satisfy the local regulation such as paying an import tax and likely an agent’s fee. With importation you will receive local plates. More importantly, however, to drive a car with local plates in Mexico means that all drivers are required to have a valid Mexican driver’s license. Excluding rental cars, this requires some skill with Spanish and a blood test. Many people simply cannot accomplish the former… and may never be able to do so. The California DMV doesn’t seem to understand that you may live in California, have a home in Cabo San Lucas, and simply cannot register in Mexico. In this case you don’t have any options.

For the adventurous Spanish speakers among us, if you still simply want to import a car into Mexico, find a custom’s broker, e.g. in San Diego and/or Tijiuana. On the other hand, if you decide you would rather not import your car due to the various headaches mentioned above, and would simply prefer to drive with US plates, you have a dilemma. [Note: if you’re a real bargain shopper, you can even avoid sales tax (by having your Baja-bound vehcile delivered to the border)]. Namely, what do you if yo have a car that’s a 1976 or newer model and your registration tags expire and it is a year in which you are required to renew your smog certificate (bi-annually)? If you are willing to drive home, there’s no need to read this. Note: as an aside, it’s even more difficult when the mechanic pulls off your catalytic converter because “they don’t sell those here” and I couldn’t see why you would need yours. If it’s not obvious that there’s no California smog certficates issued in Mexico, then go back to start. And, without current registration tags, the police can impound your car. More likely, an officer will hassle you and stick out their hand (if you’re lucky). Additionally, although I have been unable to confirm this and am a bit sketical if it is a legitimate company, some insurance companies reportedly won’t honor their policies in an accident if your registration is not current (whether or not your policy contains a clear exclusion). I have confirmed my insurance (Lewis & Lewis) covers me even with expired tags. Yours “should” as well (God forbid you forget to renew your plates for 24 hours and get in an accident). You should ask your insurance carrier about this directly. Here’s what should be the holy grail. I wish it was that easy. CA DMV Form 256 provides an exemption to the Smog Check requirement that will allow you to register your car and receive new tags without driving your car back to California — if your vehicle is more than 1,000 miles from a US border. Here’s the form:  Statement of Facts (right click and choose “Save As”). Here’s the next hoop you need to jump through. Unfortunately, most of the staff at the California DMV seem to be confused by their Form (it is admittedly confusing) and unfamiliar with the exemption.  Nonetheless, if you follow these instructions, you should be okay. Completing the form is fairly straight forward but there are a few traps for the unwary. Complete the sections that ask for your license plate, VIN, and year/make of the vehicle. In Section “B. Statement for Smog Exemption”, check the box “It is located outside the State of California”.

Here’s where it gets a bit tricky. The form says “(Exception: Nevada and Mexico). This seems to suggest if your car is in Mexico the form is inapplicable! This caused a lot of confusion for DMV staff and I can understand why (DMV: PLEASE change this). In fact, the staff agent I dealt with directly on this issue pointed to that language as evidence that Mexico is excluded from an exemption for smog certificates. Others have had the same result. However, the regulation states that cars that located over 1,000 miles from the border are exempt from the smog test (even if the car is in Mexico). While not in the California Vehicle Code or in the form — drum roll please — in section 27.150 of, get this, “an online DMV manual” (unfortunately I couldn’t get a better description of what I was reading from the agent) this issue is directly addressed with the following text: “27.150 Vehicles Located Outside of California A smog certificate is not required when a vehicle is located outside of California. The registered owner must complete a Statement of Facts (REG 256) or submit a letter explaining that the vehicle is out of state.  The exemption for vehicles located outside of California does not apply if the residence or mailing address of the registered owner/lessee or the address where the vehicle is garaged is in any of the following cities [Note: I did not include various Nevada cities that are also listed; however, it is important to note that ONLY SPECIFIC CITIES IN MEXICO ARE LISTED AND THEY ARE NOT 1000 MILES FROM THE BORDER ANYWAY ]:


  • Tecate
  • Tijijuana
  • Tijijuana Baja CA

So, near the “(Exception: Nevada and Mexico)” language, write “Over” or “See Next Page”.  Then on the next page under section “G. Statement of Facts”, write: “The car is in Baja in the town of [insert location], [insert number greater than 1000 miles] below the border.  The car will not be re-enter the U.S. without a smog certificate.” Make sure you also have a copy of your auto insurance policy that will cover your car in Mexico (or wherever it is located). Currently the DMV is making a big push to ensure all registered cars comply with Regulation 33.040 Evidence of Financial Responsibility (Vehicle Code Section 16020). This section establishes what documentation will be adequate to ensure you are adequately insured in an accident. Again, this is another landmine where many of the DMV staff gets confused, primarily because of bullet point 3 which is not relevant for most of us (more below). Here are the types of documents that “should” satisfy the DMV per this section:

  • “A document or insurance card from an insurance company indicating the vehicle is insured.” [Note: THIS SHOULD BE ALL YOU NEED but the third bullet confuses the staff and typically starts an endless dialogue on this issue.]
  • “An insurance document or ID card from Canada.”
  • “A Mexico resident insurance policy may be accepted when the vehicle record shows a resident address in Mexico or the owner changes his/her address to show a residence in Mexico and completes a Statement of Facts (REG 256) that certifies he/she is a resident of Mexico and gives his/her Mexican resident address. Attach the REG 256 to the DMV file copy.” [NOTE: this does not apply to most people reading this as they are not residents of Mexico and they do not hold a Mexican resident insurance policy — which, as far as I can tell, Mexican resident insurance is typically only available for cars registered in Mexico! So, when they try to tell you that you need to file a change of address and to indicate you are a Mexican resident, they are wrong. Presumably your “travel” policy is only valid for NON-RESIDENTS and is, by its terms, NOT a Mexico resident policy! In fact, even the language of this section tries to clarify. The text continues by saying, ” A Mexican resident policy will be labeled as such or will indicate that it is only valid for coverage of Mexican residents; it is not valid if the insured is not a Mexican resident. Do not confuse a Mexican resident insurance policy with a “travel” policy which does not contain such residency exceptions. “ Query whether this means that a long term, e.g., one year travel policy is adequate but why wouldn’t it satisfy the first bullet since it is insured?]
  • There are 4 other approaches that don’t apply to most people but, at a high level, include:
    • A DMV letter for self-insurers
    • A surety bond
    • A CA Proof of Insurance Certificate
    • Evidence that the vehicle is owned or leased by a public entity
    • Motor Carriers with insurance on file under the PUC or DMV.

In short, a travel policy from a US carrier should suffice, especially if it’s issued for a term of 6-12 months and is available only for ex-pats (rather than Mexican citizens); however, I have been advised that the DMV may frown on short term travel policies. They also seem to want it to have a Mexican address on it, but that opens a whole can of worms since then they are targeting a Mexican resident policy and you are probably not a Mexican resident. A California address should (is supposed to) be fine. I had my carrier add a Mexican address but left the US address on the form as a mailing address. Why the DMV would care if you are insured in Mexico is beyond me, especially given the insurance doesn’t apply in the US by its terms. So you could technically get a smog exemption, have no US insurance and drive over the border from Mexico into the US… without insurance here anyway. LOL. To give the legislators the benefit of the doubt, maybe it is driven by a reciprocity clause under a treaty with Mexico or some other countries, e.g., we’ll let your cars on our roads and vice-versa… if they are insured. But you can go to jail here and in Mexico without insurance. Also, you can get insurance and cancel the next day if you want to so it seems somewhat silly. Mexico will enforce their own laws re insurance and the US is in no position to police this anyway. When you show up at the DMV and provide the above documentation (2 documents —  insurance and statement of facts), you “should” receive a smog exemption and be able to register your car.  “Should” because not all the agents, in fact very few agents, are readily familiar with this regulation, in which case you will need to ask to send the case to Sacramento.

The junior agent and supervisor I spoke to said I could only do this one time. I asked why and she said that’s just the way things were working now. Not sure what you do when your tags expire in Mexico, you have no smog certificate and you can’t get the car back to the US, 1,000 miles away, for a $40 smog check.  She had no answer other than register it there (which is not only impractical but impossible for me for a variety of reasons cited here). Admittedly I walked through this all myself and succeeded; however, it took 2 hours and the senior agent surrendered only after being put on hold by Sacramento for 20 minutes and giving up (after telling me she was unwilling to put her job at risk for an hour).

So, although I am generally confident in most of this analysis, I have not yet received any senior staff sign-off in Sacramento. Please comment if you have been successful, especially after April of 2009, at the Sacramento level.  I received a letter from the DMV in Sacramento dated March 18, 2010 from Kitty Kramer, Program Manager, Registration Policy and Development. She confirmed my approach was appropriate. Additionally, in the letter I was assured “Please rest assured that the department’s policy regarding smog exemptions for vehicles located out of state will be reiterated to all staff. I apologize for the frustration and please accept my apology for the inconvenience.”

Good luck!

About jimpickell

James Pickell, CEO & President
Self-confessed serial entrepreneur. Addicted to challenges. Bores easily. Baja denizen and afficionado.
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